The Sun Belt has a unique brand of head coach, and you’ll see a lot of them on this list. This is a reflection of the personalities of many of the coaches, but also of the quirks of the conference. Several of these coaches have been around the FBS landscape for 20 years, and are still going strong.
Every week during the college football season, we rank the 130 FBS head coaches as players, based on their performance during their college careers. This year. we’re doing it during their tenure as head coaches. You have to be careful though, as many of these coaches got their start in the coaching profession as players. Still, we think some of them would have been better coaches as players than as coaches. Here they are.
Five years ago, I set out to rank all the head coaches in the FBS based on their playing careers.
I didn’t do a very good job.
In reviewing the rankings from 2016, two things stood out: how many head coaches are no longer in their roles today, and how flawed my process seemed to be in evaluating coaches as players. I placed far too much emphasis on the level of college ball played rather than rewarding those who became stars in lower divisions of the sport. The annoying part is I acknowledged who should be rewarded and didn’t follow through.
Not this time.
In re-ranking the 130 current FBS coaches as players, I placed a greater premium on those who made meaningful contributions in college, regardless of level. Naturally, those who were multiyear starters, multiple letter winners or award recipients for FBS teams get more credit, as do those who played professionally, especially in the NFL. Quarterbacks who set records and started for multiple seasons receive significant credit on the list. But coaches who as players held clipboards or waved towels for elite-level programs aren’t ranked nearly as high this time.
The ranking doesn’t change as much at the top or the bottom, but features shake-ups elsewhere, as well as a number of interesting additions. There are more high-end players in this group than in the 2016 version, especially at quarterback, as Josh Heupel (Oklahoma), Steve Sarkisian (BYU), Scott Frost (Nebraska) and Jonathan Smith (Oregon State) join the mix. This list also includes several true superstars in the lower divisions, such as Will Hall (Northwest Mississippi, North Alabama) and Billy Napier (Furman).
No list is flawless and each is subjective, but my hope is this one better reflects college coaches in their playing days.
To jump directly to the top 10, click here
1. Jim Harbaugh, Michigan Wolverines: Harbaugh retains the top spot after a decorated career as both a college and NFL quarterback. The son of college coach Jack Harbaugh finished third in Heisman Trophy voting in 1986, when he won Big Ten MVP and earned All-America honors. His career pass efficiency mark (149.6) led the NCAA for 12 years. A first-round pick of the Chicago Bears in 1987, Harbaugh played portions of 15 NFL seasons, reaching the Pro Bowl and earning AFC offensive player of the year honors with Indianapolis in 1995.
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